Mayor Willie Herenton, known for his big plans and numerous controversies during the almost 13 years he has served as Memphis mayor, is famous within journalistic ranks for his candor. Though he can be as reticent as any other public figure in formal settings, even defiantly so on particularly sensitive subjects, the mayor can dish with the best of them when he wants to.
Herenton was in such a mood last Thursday night when, after arriving late at a fundraiser at downtown's Joysmith Studio for his friend, Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone, he let himself go a little with a handful of attendees. Asked about the unfounded rumor that went around, and kept going around, two weekends ago, concerning what was supposedly his imminent indictment on federal charges, the mayor made no secret of his exasperation at the willingness of people at large - especially the media - to believe anything and everything about him.
"It's unbelievable what they say!" Herenton exclaimed. He recalled another widespread rumor several years ago. "They said I was at Betty Ford and claimed they couldn't find me. Well, all they had to do was look. I was in my office working!"
At the time E.C. Jones, then a councilman from District 1, which cuts a swath across the city's northernmost precincts, from Frayser to Cordova, went public with his concerns that Herenton was nowhere to be found. "Couldn't find me!" the mayor expostulated. "Well, he could have found me if he wasn't ..." here came one or two unflattering epithets. The mayor went on. "He could have found me if he'd had enough sense to ride the elevator up two floors, from five to seven, and just look around."
Herenton was dismissive about current suspicions that he was behind the surprise firing by new superintendent Kriner Cash of the Memphis school system's former longtime athletic director, Wayne Weedon, and his replacement by David Gaines, who was once a basketball teammate of Herenton's at LeMoyne-Owen College. "Is 'Smokey' Gaines an old friend of mine? Yes. Was he a treasured teammate of mine? Yes. Did I have anything to do with getting him hired? No. I never said a word about the matter. That was Kriner Cash all the way."
(For the record, Cash has since complained that a recent, highly positive performance review had been missing from Weedon's file when he reviewed it and indicated he thought the matter deserved to be investigated. Weedon is meanwhile on "special assignment.")
The mayor offered an opinion on another issue, the sponsorship of potential referendum proposal s to require City Council approval of city contracts and second-level mayoral appointments by Barbara Swearengen Wade, long presumed an unswerving Herenton loyalist. He saw it as a matter of payback. "I think she was perturbed by my support of changing police residency requirements," said Herenton, who has favored a variety of proposals to expand the geographical areas from which police recruits can be drawn.
The mayor shrugged. "She feels very strongly that all city employees should reside in the city. I respect that, but I just need - the city needs - police officers, and we have to do what we have to do to attract them."
Though Herenton was ostensibly in a lighthearted, jesting mood, the concerns of office dominated his conversation at the fundraiser. Reminded of his teasing suggestion on two recent public occasions that he might choose to seek a sixth term in 2007, the mayor let his wide grin settle into a wan smile, then disappear altogether. "No," he said. "No, it's just too much..." momentarily he searched for the right word, then said it, softly and almost inaudibly, "...stress"